Review: Moana JR. – a musical celebration of finding your way

Erin Harrington reviews Moana JR. at The Court Theatre, 11am, Saturday 10 July 2021.

Broad public acknowledgement and celebration of Matariki has really kicked up a few notches this this year, helped along by the announcement of a regular winter public holiday. A time for reflection and renewal, it’s also a celebration of Māori star craft and traditional knowledge, and our place in the moana – the great sea of islands.

It’s fitting that The Court Theatre’s KidsFest show Moana JR. should fall now, as it similarly celebrates the connections to past and present, and the cultures of Polynesia. The show is a 60-minute musical stage show for young performers adapted from on the 2016 film Moana, which is objectively the best Walt Disney Studios animated film in recent memory (and I will fight you on that). The Court Theatre’s endearing production is led by two generations of Pasifika arts companies, Y NOT (including talented creatives Albany Peseta, Talia-Rae Mavaega and Jake Arona) and Pacific Underground. It is a heartfelt and high energy addition to this year’s school holiday programming that also offers a pretty special opportunity to the young people who make up the large cast, the majority of whom are Māori and Pasifika.

Moana is a story about adventure, wayfinding and reconciliation. Moana, the daughter of her village’s Chief, lives on the isolated on the island of Motunui, never straying beyond the safety of the lagoon. When the island’s crops start to fail, and against the wishes of her father (but with the prompting of her transgressive nana), she responds to the call of the ocean. Moana sets out to find long-disappeared demigod Maui, so that he might help her restore the heart of goddess Te Fiti and bring balance back to the world, all while reconnecting to the knowledge of her master navigator ancestors.

The show itself is quite an undertaking. There’s two rotating casts of 18 or 19, each offering an ensemble that ranges in age from primary to senior high school students. For the premiere performance, we see the Kaimātai Whetū cast. The songs, adapted from the film’s charming originals, are in English, Samoan and Tokelauan, all set to a pre-recorded score that keeps the pace cracking along – but which means there’s no room for error.

There’s also a significant amount of choreography that draws from various styles of Polynesian dance, as well as stylised ensemble movement more akin to physical theatre. This creates complex stage pictures through movement and props, such as large pieces of fabric held by hand or attached to fans, expressing the movement of air, fire and water. I know that the show kit itself offers a great deal of pre-prepared choreography resources, but given the backgrounds and strengths of the creative team, I’m also interested to know to what extent they’ve kept or embellished this movement.

In our performance, the young woman playing Moana is impressive; specific cast breakdowns aren’t offered, so my apologies for not naming her. She has a sense of strength and calm that anchors the production. She does a good job of tackling some tricky vocals, not least in the ‘I want’ song How Far I’ll Go, lending the character a real sense of sweetness and authenticity. The older actor playing Māui is warm, energetic and charismatic, with a great speaking voice. He’s a real crack up with some excellent comic timing, ably embodying the character’s playfulness, and taking full command of the stage.

The production elements are simple and effective, and include small set pieces, projection, light, detailing that recalls the patterns of tapa cloth, some large puppets and a great little sea vessel – although the sail and mast of this sometimes impede sightlines. Altogether, they present a good adaptation of the open space of the stage and the pre-existing set for evening show Once. I’m not sure if it’s by design or happy accident – let’s say the former – but the repeating star pattern on the tiles on the stage, which by night acts as the floor Irish pub, ties in beautifully with the show’s themes of navigation and wayfinding.

On the whole the cast, many of whom are new to stage performance, do an admirable job of bringing the show to life. There’s a real sense of joy and energy, not to mention pride, especially in large ensemble numbers like Tulua Tagaloa and We Know the Way. Nonetheless, the show is still a bit rough around the edges in parts. While there’s no doubt there are some serious cases of nerves that should subside, there are a few key points where speech, lyrics, choreography and the communication of significant plot points (especially those expressed through stylised movement) could do with greater confidence and clarity.

Moana, the film, always makes me bawl, and by the end of Moana JR. my companion and I are pretty sloppy too. It’s not just the songs and music, which are designed to hit some magic emotional hair-trigger deep in your lizard brain, or the thoughtfully constructed story, which foregrounds the importance of connectedness, relationships, and community. It’s also acknowledging the importance of celebrating Polynesian cultures and knowledge, and developing capacity in Pacific arts, on the biggest stage in town; representation matters.

It’s far from a perfect show, and still needs time to settle, but the sold-out family audience are beaming and cheering, and we come away with our hearts full. Fa’afetai!

Moana Jr runs at 11am and 1pm from Monday – Saturday, at The Court Theatre, until 24 July 2021.

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